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(photo credit: AP)
US President Barack Obama urged intensified Middle East peace-making following the first White House visit of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday, stressing that "time is of the essence."
He also had more harsh words for Israel on settlements and the need for a two-state solution, positions that contrast with Jerusalem's, as he heard from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu during the latter's visit two weeks ago.
"In my conversations with Prime Minister Netanyahu I was very clear about the need to stop the settlements; to make sure that we are stopping the building of outposts; to work with the Palestinian Authority in order to alleviate some of the pressures that the Palestinian people are under in terms of travel and commerce," Obama said, as he sat beside Abbas at the Oval Office.
The comments were well-received by the Palestinians, in particular Abbas, a domestically weak leader who needs a political boost.
Obama did take Abbas to task for incitement, urging him to "continue to make progress in reducing the incitement and anti-Israel sentiments that are sometimes expressed in schools and mosques and in the public square."
But he commended Abbas for "great progress in terms of security in the West Bank," as the PA has worked with US General Keith Dayton to reform security forces, and praised him for insisting that Hamas, currently in control of the Gaza Strip, recognize Israel's existence, end violence, and honor past Israeli-Palestinian agreements before it be allowed into a Palestinian unity government.
Attention after the meeting focused mostly on America's latest round of tough words for Israel, a sharp difference in tone from previous administrations, particularly the previous one, which had mostly overlooked "natural growth" in the settlements.
In its story Friday, The Los Angeles Times summed up: "The net effect was to make the Israeli government appear to be the holdout." And in Friday's Washington Post, columnist Jackson Diehl described a paradigm shift from the Bush administration's stance that "the United States was not going to expect major concessions from Israel" to Obama's repeated calls for a total settlement freeze.
"In doing so, he has shifted the focus to Israel," Diehl wrote.
Diehl, who conducted an interview with Abbas for the piece, quotes the Palestinian leader as saying that this new context means he expects Obama to pressure the Israelis to make concessions ahead of resuming negotiations.
"The Americans are the leaders of the world," Abbas is quoted as saying. "They can use their weight with anyone around the world. Two years ago they used their weight on us. Now they should tell the Israelis, 'You have to comply with the conditions.'"
Those conditions include freezing settlements and accepting a two-state formula before talks begin or Abbas engages Arab states about offering their own gestures, and even before he cooperates with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, according to the column.
"We can't talk to the Arabs until Israel agrees to freeze settlements and recognize the two-state solution," Abbas said in the interview. "Until then we can't talk to anyone."
However, participants at a closed-door panel with Abbas on Wednesday were given the impression that he was more open to discussions with Israel than the Diehl interview suggested.
"To us he said quite explicitly there's not preconditions," said one attendee, who added that Abbas said what was important was for negotiations to take place on the political level, since the other areas of coordination that Netanyahu has focused on - security and the economy - were already taking place.
At one point during the press conference with Obama, Abbas himself said, "Obviously without discussing and negotiating permanent status issues there will be no progress â€¦ what is needed right now is to resume the discussions with the current Israeli government."
Chief negotiator Saeb Erekat also told Wednesday's group of think-tank experts and Middle East peace advocates that the key point was that discussions on core issues - Jerusalem, refugees and the like - are what's needed and that Netanyahu is refusing to discuss final-status issues, making negotiations pointless.
The participant said that the Obama administration might not be demanding of Abbas the same emphatic willingness to open negotiations that it did of Netanyahu - which the prime minister complied with by mentioning his readiness to start talks "immediately" during his own Oval Office appearance - out of a sense that such a position could hurt Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen.
"Sitting down and negotiating with a prime minister that doesn't agree to a two-state solution is detrimental to him," the participant said. "Already Abu Mazen is being mocked and belittled by the Palestinian public for having conducted fruitless negotiations."
He said that that in "shifting the onus to Israel," despite Netanyahu's own political constraints in making moves towards the Palestinians, and in focusing on a deliverable like settlements as opposed to the more intangible negotiating process, Obama could also be looking to boost the American position with the greater Arab world.
"It's a very significant deliverable to the Arab world to show that he's being really tough on Israel," he said.
A White House official, however, did stress to The Jerusalem Post that "We have urged all sides to avoid setting preconditions to negotiations."
When asked at the Abbas meeting about Israel's commitment to such a process, and its reluctance to endorse a two-state solution or freeze natural growth in settlements, Obama responded that "it's important not to assume the worst, but to assume the best," and that his conversation with Netanyahu "only took place last week."
He continued, "I think that we don't have a moment to lose, but I also don't make decisions based on just the conversation that we had last week, because obviously Prime Minister Netanyahu has to work through these issues in his own government."
Obama also seemed to appeal directly to the Israeli public on some of these issues, suggesting he was looking for solidarity there even when its government representatives might see things differently.
Speaking of establishing two states living in peace and prosperity, he said, "That kind of situation is good for Israel's security. And I am confident that the majority of the Israeli people would see that as well."
He later said, "I believe that many Israelis share the same view that time is of the essence, that we can't continue [to] drift, with the increased fear and resentments on both sides, the sense of hopelessness around the situation that we've seen for many years now - we need to get this thing back on track."
Obama also began Thursday's press conference by stressing that "we are a stalwart ally of Israel and it is in our interests to assure that Israel is safe and secure" and otherwise emphasizing the US commitment to Israel.
During his remarks, Obama made no similar commitment to the Palestinian people, or any personal references to his meeting with Abbas, which, at 90 minutes, was much shorter than his four-hour encounter with Netanyahu.
He is not due to meet with either leader when he makes his own trip to the Middle East this week, beginning with meetings in Riyadh with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on Wednesday and followed the next day by a visit to President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in Cairo.
In Egypt, he will deliver his long-anticipated speech to the Muslim world, which he described Thursday as "a broader message about how the United States can change for the better its relationship with the Muslim world."
He added, "Certainly the issue of Middle East peace is something that is going to need to be addressed. It is a critical factor in the minds of many Arabs in countries throughout the region and beyond the region. And I think that it would be inappropriate for me not to discuss those."
He did not provide further specifics, but aides have dismissed the idea that he will be laying out his own detailed plan at the appearance.
Obama will then stop at the Buchenwald concentration camp while in Germany ahead of a D-Day commemoration to take place in France on Saturday.
"He will obviously underscore the terrible tragedy, the undeniable tragedy of the Holocaust," Denis McDonough, a deputy national security adviser, told reporters Friday ahead of the trip, noting that Obama's uncle had helped liberate the camp.
When asked at press briefing earlier in the day whether it was a hint to Israel, following his trip to Egypt, that he was not neglecting their history, White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs did not answer directly.
"Obviously, the location has a personal significance for him as has been mentioned," Gibbs said. "But I think the stop there is a powerful reminder - as we travel the next day and commemorate the bravery of the soldiers that scaled the cliffs for D-Day and started the liberation of a continent - I think it's a powerful symbol, and a reminder of what was going on at that time."